During a crisis, managers face day-to-day challenges and long-term uncertainty. Here’s how to manage remote work, peer-to-peer communication, supply chain shortfalls, and more.
The way people work has changed in dramatic ways since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Managing, monitoring, and motivating employees from afar has also proven to be a challenge. These insights from MIT Sloan Management Review provide guidance for corporate leaders navigating the new world of work.
In a matter of weeks this spring, the U.S workforce shifted from 15% of employees working at home sometimes to 49% of employees working at home all the time. Many companies expect to keep employees at home for the foreseeable future, and industries such as finance are shifting to a model where the majority of workers are remote.
MIT Sloan senior lecturer
and his co-authors offer five principles for effectively managing a distributed workforce.
While it’s too soon to tell whether the workforce dispersed by COVID-19 will return to the office, it’s clear that traditional metrics for evaluating employee performance aren’t suitable for digital workflows. The companies that best seize the opportunity to learn from the current situation, according to MIT Sloan research fellow Michael Schrage, will rethink performance management to better measure how people and teams work together remotely.
Here are four recommendations for those managing a remote workforce for the foreseeable future:
A crisis impacts the way that groups come together to make decisions. Time is of the essence, there are multiple points of view to consider — and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, groups that would ordinarily convene in person have been forced to meet remotely.
MIT Sloan’s and
conducted two experiments in statistical analysis to determine how organizational structures influence collective decision-making. In both cases, participants earned higher scores when they were able to interact with a network of peers than they did when working alone — and they earned the highest scores when they could choose their collaborators.
In a real-world setting, this means allowing teams to reconfigure as needed to bring in additional expertise. For example, Ford’s pivot to manufacturing face shields for health workers required the quick assembly of a new network of decision-makers: Software designers, supply chain logistics experts, government affairs experts, and communications managers, in addition to engineers. In other words, dynamic networks are better adapted to crisis response than static organizational hierarchies.
Shortages of ventilators and personal protective equipment hindered health care’s response to COVID-19 — and showed the challenges of managing a supply chain in a crisis. MIT professor Yossi Sheffi examined several past disruptive events and offered a choice of tactics for managing supply chain disruption for today’s business leaders.
The choice of tactics will depend on the expected short- and long-term impact on both the company and its customers. Of course, a strong balance sheet enables a company to operate from a position of strength and align its decisions with existing strategic imperatives.
Due in part to its success in South Korea, contact tracing has been touted as a viable way to move the economy and the health care system forward in the United States. However, contact tracing typically requires smartphones, and more than half of Americans over the age of 80 — the population most vulnerable to COVID-19 — don’t have a smartphone. (In contrast, more than 90% of Americans under 50 have one.)
Most digital businesses rely on the network effect to grow; when they get enough users, a product or service becomes attractive and valuable. MIT Sloan professor
and Occidental College professor Lesley Chiou argue that enough users is not enough in this case — responses to COVID-19 must consider the needs of technology laggards so all users are able to adopt a contact-tracing solution.
Plans to scale the implementation of contact tracing shouldn’t rely just on Bluetooth to detect proximity to another smartphone or push alerts to notify someone that a recent contact has tested positive for COVID-19. Such plans are particularly negligent of residents of nursing homes, which face some of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in the U.S. and house more than 2 million of the nation’s seniors. Only by considering the needs of Americans without smartphones — and deploying inexpensive cellular technology in nursing homes — will a contract-tracing program prove to be a true solution.
Since boards of directors are removed from day-to-day operations, they are well positioned to help companies develop strategic plans for the weeks and months ahead. MIT Sloan professor
and co-author Rutger von Post describes a two-phase process for how boards can guide businesses through a crisis.
The first phase is immediate: Boards must evaluate which segments of the company face the greatest risk — whether it’s a supply chain being cut off, an entire business unit closing, or an IT system falling to defend against a cyber attack. As this evaluation happens, the board should ask management for an action plan that focuses both on immediate survival and on the uncertainty ahead, with supplemental plans that look as far as two years ahead.
The second phase is a long, hard look at the company’s strategy. Is the company prepared for the changes to industry and employment after COVID-19? Getting to an answer means pressing management hard in four key areas: